Moon over Tao is one of those movies where the idea should have yielded something really awesome, but what they ended up with was only okay. It’s one of a very small number of “hybrid fantasy” movies from Japan, where they take a typical samurai/ninja adventure story and fuse it with something else. A great example of this would probably be Zipang, which was just so unhinged and off-the-wall that I couldn’t resist it. Tao mixes and matches a samurai adventure with a sci-fi fantasy, but it plods for too much of its running time instead of really cutting loose. I hate to think that until Zipang is issued domestically we’ll have to settle for mediocre stuff like this.
Tao kicks off with two characters who are staples of samurai action films: a taciturn samurai, Hayate (Hiroshi Abe, also of Baian the Assassin) and a liquor-swilling, magic-spell-slinging monk, Suikyou (Toshiyuki Nagashima), himself formerly an army general. The two of the have teamed back up at the behest of a local lord to investigate a series of strange happenings. Apparently a meteorite has fallen from heaven and a priest with delusions of grandeur has forged swords from the alien ores contained within—swords that his goons are now using to wreak havoc up and down the countryside.
See, also crashing to earth are three alien robo-babes (all played by Yūko Moriyama) who squabble amongst themselves and end up losing a powerful artifact of their own—the Tao of the title—which can be used to stop the meteorite’s power. In a parallel development, Hayate and Suikyou run afoul of the evil wizard’s minions and rescue a farmer girl who’s somehow ended up with the Tao. The bunch of them all find themselves fighting for their lives in the wizard’s base camp after he’s unleashed a giant CGI monster that looks like one of the end bosses in the Doom games.
What initially caught my interest and held it is the grain of historical fact at the core of the story. Meteorite ores were indeed occasionally used as one of the many base metals for samurai swords; I kept thinking a really interesting movie could have been made from that concept. Unfortunately, Tao doesn’t follow that idea on its own merit and instead throws in about a hundred percent too much plot for its own good. We get the two knights-errand, and the girl (cute but annoying), and the evil wizard’s machinations, and the monster, and the three alien ladies, and yet somehow all of this adds up to amazingly little. Each successive twist in the story only makes things all the slower and more pained, and when a fight breaks out (as one does every five minutes or so, just to keep us interested) it’s shot in such a stodgy, stagy way that we start fidgeting.
On some dumb, basic level, I guess, the movie does deliver. It’s good-looking—some of the digital effects are really impressive—and there’s enough novelty in the story to at least keep things moving. But next to stuff like Zipang, or Makai Tensho, it bulks pretty small. There’s better ways to spend two hours, methinks.